To qualify as a Hollywood blockbuster, historical epics have to have several things: an anachronistically modern hero, a ruthless villain, a contrived love story, cataclysmic battle scenes and, of course, beheadings. But historical epics also have to have something else: a Big Idea, typically an idiosyncratic fragment of pop philosophy repeated as a motif throughout the film. In Braveheart, for instance, Mel Gibson’s William Wallace fought for freedom, while in The Patriot, everyone advised Gibson’s character to stay the course every time he seemed to be going a bit nuts. The Big Idea is important because it gives the story a semblance of coherence, and it gives the special effects extravaganza an air of respectability.
Kingdom of Heaven, this year’s Crusades blockbuster by Ridley Scott, would be no different, except that his Big Idea is both more timely and more complex. Scott’s film is about the possibility of peace between Christians and Muslims, which can be summed up in the notion of hospitality.
Hospitality, broadly conceived as the ability of strangers to coexist in a society of mutual respect for difference, is the kingdom of heaven that Scott’s film hopes for and that both Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) and his estranged father, Godfrey (Liam Neeson), pledge to defend. Viewed through the lens of this Big Idea, Kingdom of Heaven is only ostensibly about the Crusades, which is a good thing, since the film is only partially faithful to the historical record.
The story in the film goes as follows. Balian begins as a humble French blacksmith enticed to the Crusades. Godfrey, who dies early but not before knighting Balian, is a different sort of Crusader; his spiritual guide is a Knight Hospitaleran important plot device in a film about hospitalityand his oath has more to do with telling the truth and defending the weak than fighting the Saracens.
When Balian makes it to Jerusalem, he finds an uneasy peace falling apart. He refuses to join the scheming Guy de Lusignan (Marton Csokas) and the Knights Templar against the Muslim general Saladin. The Crusader army is destroyed, leaving Balian alone to defend Jerusalem. He fights Saladin, and though he loses Jerusalem, he ensures the safety of its people.
Any modern film about the Crusades is likely to make Catholics, as well as Muslims, flinch. The Crusades were not a bright spot in human history, and they are often used in both anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim propaganda. But while the film does feature Catholics (there were, after all, few non-Catholic Christians in the West in the 1180’s), and though some quirky bits of medieval Catholic teaching come through, the film is not anti-Catholic, nor even necessarily anti-Christian. Christians are depicted as a divided lot, some favoring war with Muslims, others praying for peaceful coexistence.
Muslims are treated more favorably, though there is a token anti-Christian agitator in Saladin’s camp. The film’s portrayal of Muslims, though, has sparked concern. At the film’s release, Pat Robertson’s 700 Club ran a week of special reports expressing concern about such politically correct depictions. Kingdom of Heaven, they argued, wrongly downplays the real differences between faiths. Their charge is largely correctthough, in the film’s defense, a blockbuster can manage only one Big Idea at a time. So not really delving into differences keeps this film from being a great one.
Robertson’s critique is also important because it reflects the major criticism that can be made of the idea of hospitality. This idea is a darling of the postmodern left, who see it as a way out of clashes of rival truth claims, which it believes cannot be decided rationally. Without criteria to evaluate truth, postmodern liberals, like the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, see hospitality as the practice of a minimalist ethic of tolerance. Hospitality quickly becomes a sort of negative ethics, in which the only judgment is to refrain from making judgments.
Beneath the conservative frustration, though, lies a real problem, which is what Scott seems to be trying to address. There is a widespread but often unexpressed sense among many in the West, particularly among evangelicals, that Islam is inherently evil. (One of Pat Robertson’s commentators, Ted Baehr, went so far as to suggest that the hordes of goblins and orcs in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings represented Muslims, and Baehr encouraged Christians to view Islam in a similar way.) And there is the belief, also among many evangelicals, that the only way to peace in the Middle East lies in the conversion of Muslims to Christianity. Modern-day Knights Templar, they seek to obliterate Islam, albeit by less bloody means. In retrospect, the Christians who come out badly in Scott’s film are not Catholics but today’s evangelicals, who are often tempted to baptize their aggressive Middle East policy in Scripture.
Given the critiques, though, the hospitality advocated by Scott’s film is potentially more rugged. Scott may be guilty of downplaying the Christian-Muslim divide, but his peace is not cheap.
As Saladin surrounds Jerusalem, Balian addresses his ragtag army. He tells them that Jerusalem is the home of three faiths, with three different sets of shrines, but that he would gladly burn them all to spare its people. But, in an interesting turn, he discusses the struggle in broader terms. None of us, he says, was born when Jerusalem was captured from the Muslims, nor was any of Saladin’s army. The siege was avenging grievances no one on either side had committed. Who has a claim to Jerusalem? Everyone does. Who has sinned? Everyone has.
For many liberals, Balian’s speech would be enough justification to roll over and seek peace at any price. The cycle of violence must end, they would argue, and so it might as well begin with us. But Balian does not advocate surrender. He fights to force terms. In fact, much to the confusion of the movie critics, Balian fights more than one would expect of a modern liberal peace activist.
Balian is, of course, in the middle of an action movie. And certainly the historical Balian would have had no choice but to fight, because defeat meant almost certain death. But Balian’s combat could reflect something deeper: that Ridley Scott’s understanding of hospitality may not lie in the absence of conflict. It is something that must be won. Such a notion of hospitality does not imply the abdication of truth but the presence of truth. Balian, like Godfrey before him, swears to an almost Kantian ethic: to live humbly, protect the kingdom, secure the peace, tell the truth even if it leads to one’s own death, protect the innocent and helpless, uphold the just. This is a tough ethic, born of chivalry, humility and faith. It is a vision of hospitality worth dying for.
Though he may not have intended it, Scott’s vision of interfaith hospitality actually comports quite well with the ecumenism and interfaith dialogue pioneered by the late Pope John Paul IIa dialogue, as the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus has noted in The Catholic Moment, that relies considerably on George Lindbeck’s post-liberal theology. Drawing on foundations as diverse as Wittgenstein and Aquinas, Lindbeck argues in his book The Nature of Doctrine that faiths are systems of beliefs that make claims about the truth and that these claims, while different, have consequences. Different religious traditions, in his view, are really different, and they emerge from different religious terminologies, practices and histories.
Nevertheless, Lindbeck believed that people of different faiths can learn from one another and come to a shared sense of understanding and respect. Religions, he says, are like maps to the truth. They can be assessed according to their completeness, their similarities and differences and their adequacy in expressing the truth. For Lindbeck, religions engage in dialogue not to convert but to assist one another. Christianity may have a responsibility to help other movements and other religions make their own particular contributions, he writes. The missionary task of Christians may at times be to encourage Marxists to become better Marxists, Jews and Muslims to become better Jews and Muslims, and Buddhists to become better Buddhists.
Lindbeck’s theology is unpalatable to both traditionalist conservatives and traditionalist liberals. As Neuhaus has observed, Lindbeck’s understanding of truth is too provisional for conservatives who demand transcendent absolutes, but his recognition of real differences between peoples contradicts the common liberal assumption that all religions are essentially the same. Yet, Neuhaus continued, Lindbeck’s work makes it possible for someone like the late John Paul II to say that Christianity was unequivocally true but also to kiss the Koran. Lindbeck’s theology encourages humility, but it also offers more than a weak, politically correct regime of tolerance. It offers a muscular, rugged hospitality that takes both truth and peace seriously.
Such a rugged hospitalitya hospitality worthy of a kingdomis one that the Catholic Church, with the help of John Paul II’s and now Pope Benedict XVI’s interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, is potentially approaching. Because it believes in its truth, the church must work to protect its faith from syncretism, yet it must also search for the common ground that can be found only in an atmosphere of mutual respect. The church must recognize that peace cannot come at the price of lives and souls, but it must also resist total religious war. The peace of Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, like the peace of John Paul II’s church, is a peace of partners who have different, but interrelated visions of life.
In one of the film’s last scenes, the victorious Saladin tours his prize. On the floor of a Jerusalem church, he finds a cross that has toppled to the ground. He pauses, picks it up and places it back on the altar. The scene reflects well on Saladin, but it reflects equally well on Balian, who proved a worthy opponent. In our world, in which an Islamic East and a post-Christian West are reprising battles begun centuries ago, such a begrudging respect would be welcome indeed. The truth is worth it.